By Anya Shukla
I feel bad writing this, but I didn’t know who Ted Chiang was before I read this book. He’s famous! (Well, writer-famous.) We had a whole sci-fi unit in high school, but his name was never mentioned.
It’s not that we didn’t read BIPOC sci-fi authors—‘cause we did!—but I just wish there was more discussion about contributions to this genre by people of color. If all the sci-fi books you’ve read and movies you’ve watched growing up are “white guys fight each other in space” situations, I think it takes more than reading two authors of color in class to feel that you’re represented.
Review: Ted Chiang may be one of science fiction’s luminaries. With eight Hugo and Nebula awards to his name—as well as the credit for writing the inspiration behind the 2016 blockbuster “Arrival”—he has a knack for creating thought-provoking sci-fi worlds. In “Exhalation: Stories,” his 2008 collection of short stories, he continues to imagine new technological situations. His stories range in topic from robot nannies to AI-human connections to God, meaning there’s a sci-fi scenario for everyone.
Chiang brings up several intriguing topics in a (mostly) accessible and realistic way. Many stories deal with free will, for example—what happens if we can determine our own destinies, what happens if we cannot, who we are at our core. Be prepared for some serious psychoanalysis. My Rating: 4/5.
What I Loved: Chiang clearly puts a great deal of thought into his sci-fi situations. When he discusses the origins of parallel timelines in “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” he does so in a realistic manner: “when a prism was activated, a quantum measurement was performed inside the device… from that moment forward, the prism allowed information transfer between two branches of the universal wave function” (pg. 483). Do I know what the “universal wave function” is? No. But based on my Wikipedia knowledge of quantum mechanics, this sounds like a plausible scenario.
“Exhalation: Stories” may also be the only BIPOC Book I’ve read so far that isn’t #ownvoices; several of Chiang’s stories are of communities distinct from his own lived experiences. While I don’t have direct experience with these communities, Chiang’s depictions feel grounded and well-researched.
For example, Chiang sets portions of “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” in Tivland, Nigeria, where missionary teaches a local villager to read. Instead of playing into tropes about Europeans “enlightening” others, Chiang connects the missionary’s teachings back to the local way of life (the Tiv keep goats and chickens): “the sounds a person made while speaking were as smooth and unbroken as the hide of a goat’s leg, but the words were like bones underneath the meat” (pg. 346). Later on, the importance of patrilineage in Tiv culture plays an integral part in the story.
#ownvoices has always been an interesting debate: to what extent can we accurately write about communities that aren’t ours? Are there some characters that only certain people can explore? Chiang makes me believe that considerate, thoughtful research and writing can help us write about others’ situations.
What I Didn’t Love: One or two short stories get too exposition-heavy, which bogs down their pacing. “Lifecycle of Software Objects,” for example, details humans’ emotional connection to virtual AI pets and their dedication to supporting them over many years. But because the story spans a large period of time, Chiang often “tells” us information about the AI company or the main characters’ feelings for one another instead of sharing these details through dialogue and action. This “telling” removed me from the story and prevented me from understanding why the humans care so deeply about their AI pets. Especially because Chiang does exposition so well in other chapters, I would have preferred that he take more time to flesh out the characters and their motivations here.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “If everyone remembered everything, would our differences get shaved away? What would happen to our sense of self?” (pg. 367).
Up next: “Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen” by Liliuokalani.